There are challenges to be faced by those new to Bikepacking.  Take a lesson from history and avoid making mistakes that have already been made.  

Traveling by bike is as old as the bike itself.  Adventurous souls have taken to seeing the world at a biking pace for the simple reason that it is a wonderful and fulfilling experience. However recently arriving at the forefront of bike touring culture and language is the term bikepacker.  This has presented an inevitable debate as to what exactly bikepacking is, and when this became a separate meaning from touring. Therefore I should note that for the purposes of this article, we will define a “bikepacker” as an off-road cyclist who wants to squeeze as much single track, fire road and other mixed terrain sections as possible, into a multi-day route which will also involve some camping.  “Bikepackers” not only go out of their way to hunt down these sections, but they want to ride them efficiently, at speed and in control.

For those fresh to the bikepacking scene, there is a strong likelihood that you’ll be faced with a series of choices or “battles” that will need to be worked out.  Some of these are personal and are for you alone to figure out.  Will you choose a tent instead of a bivy, a frame bag over a backpack, or pack whiskey instead of beer?  Other choices however should be easy and don’t need to be fought on your own.  Pioneers of the sport have gone toe-to-toe and sussed out many details, made the mistakes, and taken the hits so we don’t have to.  They have developed methods of packing and thinking that have changed what is possible.  We, the modern bikepacker, should look to and trust these pioneers and inventors, and not question, but learn from what they have done to bring us the knowledge and gear that makes our two-wheeled travels much, much easier.  The main event in this series of battles has got to be that of Racks and Panniers vs. Handlebar Bags and Seat Bags.

The Main Event

Bar & Seat Bags V.S. Racks & Panniers

Modern bikepacking bags; thank God we have them! Thank you to those who have put in the miles and the time, and those who have dealt with the grief necessary to shake out all the weak spots of traditional touring gear.  To those who have ended up in the weeds while trying to steer a poorly packed rig down a twisty and rough path.  Why on earth an off-road cyclist would choose to go with a rack and pannier system over a bar and seat bag boggles the mind.  Unless you love discomfort and struggle or are the type that must experience things for yourself, buy a proper set of bikepacking bags.

Round 1 - Weight & Cost

Rack and Panniers Example

Salsa Wanderlust HD Rear Rack – 1120g/$140.00

Salsa Touring Panniers Rear – 1820g/$170.00

Salsa Down Under HD Front Rack – 950g/$110.00

Salsa Touring Panniers Front – 1400g/$170.00

Total Weight = 5290 grams/11.5 lbs

Total Cost = $590.00

Bar and Seat Bag Example

Blackburn Outpost Seat Pack – 516g/$119.99

Blackburn Outpost Handlebar Roll – 517g/$99.99

Total Weight = 1033 Grams/2.5 lbs

Total Cost = $219.98

The numbers pretty much make it clear as to which opponent has the edge here. The only down side and arguable point favoring panniers, is in their potential carrying capacity.   Yes, they can take on lots of gear and have room for bulky items, but it is this ability that will allow the rider to take everything and the kitchen sink along for the ride.  Full size pots and pans don’t belong on the trail.  Yes, it has happened.  The limiting capacity of the bar and seat bag will force the rider to consider every piece of gear.  When space is limited, smarter choices are made as to what to bring and what to leave at home.  This leads to an end product more conducive to fun and maneuverability.  In most cases, the gear you actually need to bring with you, will weigh less than the panniers and rack you are planning to put them in.  Seems a bit counterproductive right?

DING, DING!!!  Round 1 goes to Bar & Seat Bags

Round 2 - Weight Distribution

A light and capable set up

The key to having a bike that can actually handle and maneuver on single track is weight distribution.  A seat bag, if packed correctly with the heaviest items at the front and lighter ones at the back, simply places the added weight of the gear where your body weight already exists.  This will have the bike handling more like itself and like you have simply put an extra 10 lbs around your waist. Panniers will feel more like you’ve strapped a sack of rocks to your chain stays or front fork. In addition to weight distribution, the seat bag will tuck right behind you and clear bushes and branches on the edges of the trail where panniers will be more likely to hang up and prove to be too wide and cumbersome for most trail riding.

DING, DING!!! . . .Round 2 also goes to Bar & Seat Bags.

Round 3 - Reliability

Busted Rack Mount

An expertly sewn bag, made of durable material that is strapped to the bike with nylon straps and Velcro will not break.  Racks made of aluminum or steel are bolted and welded at numerous places. Rattle these down a washboard road and a rocky trail for a day or two and pretty soon bolts will go missing, tubing will break and welds will crack. Not to mention the panniers also have to be attached to the rack. These are usually of the plastic type and will fare no better than the rack does down that bumpy rough terrain. These things break.  Middle of the desert on the AZT, 11,000 feet up on the Colorado Trail, or out on the Alaskan Iditarod trail. These are the places bikepackers are going and last place where you should need to deal with faulty gear.

DING, DING!!! . . . That’s it.  Round 3 and the Match goes to Bar & Seat Bags

Obviously racks and panniers have their place and are not down and out for the count completely.  There will always be the cycling traveler who enjoys moving slow, taking in the scenery, and having all the items of comfort along for the journey.  The single track, backcountry experience that most bikepackers are seeking makes the bag versions a much clearer choice. Dues to their formidable combination of weight, price, load distribution, and overall reliability, these products have emerged from the ring as the superior choices. Trust in the brave souls that have already laid their legs and sanity on the line, and have fought the fight for us.

Bikepacking Basics